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Meeting Olympia's Stare

Entering the Palais de Champs Elysées, you are greeted by throngs of people admiring the most masterful works of contemporary painting. The Salon of 1865 is full of artworks, paintings depicting history, myth and the idealised human form. These works of beauty and dignity define the art scene of Paris. Crossing the hall, a painted woman meets your gaze directly, bringing you to a halt. She is completely naked and reclined, not worth mentioning here except for the daring challenge in her eyes. She is not only being looked at, she is looking at you, unashamed of her own body. A prostitute displaying her wares in a palace and daring anyone to take offence.

Many people do, of course. The woman is shocking, she is disgraceful, she is vulgar, and to display her among these beautiful works of art is an insult.

Édouard Manet was, by 1865, already known as a controversial member of the Parisian art world. France in the 1860s was the age of the Modernists, of the Impressionists, of artists that were revolutionizing the way painting was approached and of the establishment that still resisted them. The Impressionists worked quickly, capturing whatever was in front of them on their canvas with fast brushstrokes. Rather than depicting some idealised beauty, they attempting to show reality. This frequently put them in opposition with more traditional institutions such as the Royal Academy and the Salon. The Salon was the exhibition of the year, the forefront of art in Europe, and that was where Manet shared his shocking painting Olympia with Paris. Today a painting of a nude woman reclining seems so classical it is almost boring-- and it was a classical subject in 1865 as well. There were likely dozens of paintings depicting that same thing in the salon that year. But Manet, like his fellow Impressionist painters, was determined to paint something real.

The portrayal of a nude woman in a brothel was very real for Paris in 1865. Though Manet clearly referenced classical artworks, such as Titian's Venus of Urbino, he portrayed the figure in a chillingly realistic style. The name Olympia indicates towards her profession, an unconventional subject matter for the time period on its own. The wealth in the room, the control over how her body is displayed and the direct stare outwards all create an incredibly bold figure. The figure is not idealised or in some mythological setting but a common prostitute in her boudoir. It could almost be considered feminist, for 1865, a rejection of the passive female subject. The painting even broke the technical rules of the day for painting nude figures, from the size of the canvas to the brisk application of paint. Every facet of the painting seems like a deliberate challenge to the traditions of French painting in 1865.

But there are two women in Manet’s painting. While Olympia has, over time, become a subject of feminist literature, the woman’s African maid has played a role in post-colonial studies. While the white woman is empowered by her nudity, her black maid almost fades into the background. She is subservient and her deference to the other woman is a symbol to emphasise her wealth and status. Her role is one of a robotic servant, dehumanised and lacking power. It is difficult to say how much of this was a conscious choice on the part of Manet. Olympia was shown a mere seventeen years after France abolished slavery for the second time, so the roles of French people of African descent was no doubt on the public’s mind. But the maid’s role here seems to be to support Olympia. Like her jewellery and gifts, the servant is a symbol of wealth. Unlike how Olympia directs her challenging gaze towards the audience, the maid looks towards her.

But for all the controversy it received upon exhibition, Olympia would eventually become to be regarded as a masterwork of art and Manet himself the father of Modernism. The Impressionist movement, once seen as being opposed to beauty, is well loved and admired. Olympia has been endorsed by the traditional institutions, shown in the Louvre, and is on display now for millions to admire in the Musée d’Orsay.

Entering one of the most popular museums in Paris, are greeted by throngs of tourists admiring famous artworks from the previous centuries. Landscapes and scenes from nature decorate ever wall, depictions of light and colour that capture fleeting moments experienced by the artists. Making your way through the galleries you meet the gaze of a painted woman, nude and staring directly back at you. Her expression, her form, her decorations all give the impression of you entering a lady's boudoir uninvited... but meeting her eyes is no challenge.

You share a moment with Olympia and then you move on.

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